By Jon Berry
THE OTHER EVENING, WHILE OUT FOR A RUN, I CAME ACROSS A NEIGHBOR and her three, little cherubim daughters going up to a nearby woods to leave rose petals and cookies for the fairies for the summer solistice. Made sense. In these dense, misty June evenings, the world is thick with possibility. If nature can produce fireflies, with their strange, flashes of fluorescent yellow-green, why not fairies?
Plants, fed by early-summer heat and humidity, seem to grow at will this time of year. A vine will reach down and snag you when you're out for a walk, if you're not careful. Back home, the tomato plants are exploding over their baskets, the first fruit taking shape – tennis-ball-size early girls, long-teary-eye plums, squat, chubby heirlooms, perfect, round little cherries. The basil, impatient (“Good luck if you think we’re going to wait for the tomatoes”), is practically begging to be harvested. The roses are on their second of what likely will be a continuous series of blooms running well into autumn. They give the lie to the old line about the bloom being off the rose (“Just wait; more’s coming”).
Surprises often lurk in early summer’s possibilities. A handful of lettuce plants, having managed to survive the winter’s snows, have been supplying salad greens for a few weeks now. Nearby, potato plants are elbowing their way into the masses of bush beans, their long, vine-y arms clamoring up above the beans to get their share of sunlight (“Us, too!”). How these volunteers got over there, who knows. Last season, the potatoes were on the other side of the garden.
A family of foxes has taken up residence just up the road. A friend posted onto Facebook a photo of a mother deer and two fawn breakfasting in her yard. Groundhogs, skunks, and possum make daily rounds.
It’s not quite a Disneyesque peaceable kingdom. The other morning, walking to work, I was stopped by a shower of feathers floating down from the sky. In wonder (“A sun shower of feathers?”), I looked up and saw a red-tail hawk, high up in a tree, making a meal of a blue jay. A few days earlier, a young eagle swooped in front of me across the new path along the Hudson River while I was out on a run, an awe-inspiring vision from one of my favorite poems come to life (“air, pride, plume, here, Buckle!” Hopkins, “The Windhover”).
Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss the possibility of possibility in our own lives. The pileups of missteps, mistakes, setbacks, and traumas can condition us to decide that things will never change; this is just our fate, same-as-it-ever-was. But nature tells us differently. Change is the constant; you just need to grab on.
The ancients knew this. A few weeks ago, I went to an Open Center lecture in the city on Algonquin spiritual traditions. It felt frankly odd in the moment, getting smudged with sage smoke, listening to a Native American chant, while looking out a window onto Manhattan (nee Mannahatta) street of honking taxis, rumbling trucks, and on-the-make executives.
But the night’s ideas have stayed with me. The Algonquin spiritual world was thick with spiritual forces: Geezoolgh, the supreme being; Kitche Minitou, the great spirit/mystery; Kichelamukong, who “dreams us into being”; the 12 levels of the clouds; the grandmothers and grandfathers of the four directions; regional spirits; mother earth; animal spirits; ancestral land spirits; et. al.
Spirits were not “out there” but active presences. They guided you toward principles like Tchichan Kweewee (literally, “great spirit, watch over me”), being open and trusting of the world and finding inner peace wherever you are, and Madnach Afulams (“right way to live”), learning skills and tools to make your way through life.
Serendipitously, this idea that nature is not apart from us but with us, and within us, also came up this week in readings I’ve been doing on Celtic spirituality. The Celts believed nature was an animating force. “I arise today, through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendor of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth, firmness of rock,” proclaims “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” one of the oldest Celtic prayers.
To the ancient Celts, writes John O’Donohue, nature was both “presence and companion.” Within nature, the Celts drew nourishment and felt their “deepest belonging and affinity.” The experience of nature engendered “warmth and wonder.”
Joseph Campbell says the goal of life is to “match your nature with Nature.” “Follow your bliss,” his famous dictum, begins with journeying within. “Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain,” says Campbell. “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again and again.”
Sometimes, that can mean just stopping and taking life in. I never realized until recently that the oft-quoted epigram at the end of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” – “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – a favorite go-for-it, just-do-it challenge of life coaches – in fact, follows a description of a quiet day strolling through fields, falling down into grass, and asking open-ended questions (“Who made the world…the swan…the bear?”). The day’s highlight is watching a grasshopper “eating sugar out of my hand.” “Tell me,” the poem asks, “what else should I have done?” Sometimes, the call is not to do but to just pay attention.
For the full text of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” click here.
For the full text of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Windhover,” click here.
The excerpt from “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” and quote from John O’Donohue are from O’Donohue’s winsome book Anum Cara. For more information or to buy a copy, click here. A fuller version of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” appears in Thomas Cahill’s wonderful How the Irish Saved Civilization; for more information, or to buy a copy, click here.